A group of officials from several communities gathered at the on Wednesday for a press conference hosted by Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena, offering public appeals to the state General Assembly to pass Gov. Lincoln Chafee's package of municipal relief bills.
Flanked by officials, as well as visiting mayors, council members, and administrators representing towns across Rhode Island, Polisena explained that the enabling legislation is urgently needed.
"Please, let us, as leaders, have the tools to allow our communities to grow economically, and this will allow us to give our taxpayers much-needed relief," said Polisena.
The seven bills — which would allow cities and towns to waive state mandates; suspend Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) increases in pension payments; and keep past payments for school department deficits from becoming part of a town's bottom line in future budgets, among other authorities — are scheduled for a hearing by the House Finance Committee on Thursday afternoon at the State House.
[A copy of the agenda for the hearing is attached to this article.]
East Providence City Councilor William Conley, who also serves as Johnston town solicitor, said the bills would "allow communities to take individual responsibility for solving their particular pension problems."
Through the so-called "enabling legislation," which puts the decision-making on the local level, Conley explained, "essentially takes away the excuse from municipalities that 'Well, this is beyond our control [so] we can't fix it.'"
Coventry Town Manager Thomas Hoover said Chafee's legislation would provide the town a way to deal with its unfunded liabilities in its police and town employee pension funds — currently, the police retirement plan is 11 percent funded and the municipal plan is 25 percent funded.
"We know we have a big hole to dig out of," explained Hoover, who also noted that the Assembly "did a good thing" in voting for an overhaul of the state pension system.
"But we need help at the local level, those of us who have independent plans, and this package that the governor has put forward has a little bit for everyone," Hoover said. "We need that type of help out of the state house. It's very important — not only for the Town of Coventry, but for all of us — to get that help so that we can finally get these pension plans back on track and give the hard-working employees and pensioneers what they've worked so hard to enjoy."
Following the session, Polisena said he thinks the event was successful in getting legislators' attention.
"It just shows you the strong support that we have all across the state. This is supported by all 39 cities and towns, there's no doubt in my mind," the mayor explained. "I think people are going to be very hard-pressed to vote against this."
Polisena also said that legislators should worry about holding their seats after the November election if they refuse to bring the bill out of committee or defeat it.
"It's up to our delegation, and I'll be honest with you: People are going to be watching. I think you're going to be seeing a lot of people filing for office" to challenge legislators, Polisena stated. "If it doesn't come up for a vote, you're going to see a lot of new faces [filing to run]. If it comes up for a vote and people vote against it, those people will be replaced."